Regret - a helpful emotion?
Frank Sinatra said it best - “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” And ever since, we’ve felt the need to minimize regret. The arrogant among us like to say, “I have no regrets. I’m happy with my decisions and happy with how my life has turned out.” Those who say this are either not telling you the truth, or they are not really human.
We all have regrets. Because we are human, and we have endless choices in life, we will have regret. Regret is the feeling that if we had made a different choice or choices, life or circumstances would have turned out better for us. This involves counterfactual or magical thinking, and a sense that we somehow can see into the future - a future where we magically made different choices. This, of course, is not possible.
Regret may be a positive evolutionary emotion. Because we will inevitably screw up in life, we can learn from regret to not make choices that might put us in danger or unnecessary risk, thereby insuring our survival and our chances to make healthier choices the next time. Also, to feel regret, one must have empathy to understand the effects of our mistakes on others and how we affect other’s lives.
Regret also gives us the opportunity to teach others before they make the same or similar mistakes. Some of the world’s greatest writers and philosophers, by describing the wrong decisions they made, and the lessons they learned, are our greatest teachers. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable enough to describe mistaken wrong decisions and painful consequences can be the greatest and most human way to teach students, offspring, patients and other listeners/readers. I believe regret and it’s lessons can be one of the greatest tools of a therapeutic relationship.
So, don’t needlessly pressure yourselves to live a life of no regret. Instead, embrace your mistakes and the resulting regret as quintessentially human. Use regret to connect, teach and grow. Your life will be richer for it!
Dr. John Monaco